Opponents: Sheffield & Team Northumbria Competition: Super8s Date: Saturday/Sunday 8th/9th October 2016 Venue: All Saints Sheffield & Sport Central Newcastle Sheffield Result: L 3-0 (11-25, 19-25, 31-33) Northumbria Result: L 3-0 (16-25, 26-28, 23-25) Headline: Docklands grab defeat from the jaws of victory against classy Northumbria Author: Andrew Pink
A spirited display in the second match of a gruelling away doubleheader wasn't enough to trouble Team Northumbria, with the Newcastle side profiting in crunch time from Docklands' errors to win a tight match 3-0.
Andy Hopper's Docklands team were slow to get into the match in the first set, with an 11am first serve time and early morning drive from Sheffield the most likely culprit.
Manager Hopper rung the changes from the side that lost at Sheffield on Saturday, with Jean-Baptiste Arzounian making his season debut at setter and Marcel Sivak doing likewise at libero. There were flickers of life in the Docklands side, especially Mathieu Ras scoring at will as opposite, but it wasn't anywhere near enough in the first set with Northumbria taking a comfortable victory 25-16.
Docklands are a much different proposition this season than the group that finished last year with a whimper, and any expectation that the side captained by Andrew Pink would roll over here were quickly dispatched in the early stages of the second set, with the London team taking a healthy lead into the first technical timeout.
As the clock rapidly approached midday, Docklands were slowly waking up and giving Northumbria all they could handle. Standout-man for the Dave Goodchild coached outfit Seain Cook, poured in point after point as the two sides battled bravely into the 20s. Docklands scored well through a much improved Francois Leroy but will rue a referee decision or two that went against them when the side had a number of chances to take the set. Perhaps those decisions were still on the mind of the Docklands players when making two simple, yet critical errors at the worst possible time to hand the second set 28-26 and a commanding 2-0 match lead to Northumbria.
Clearly unhappy with letting the second set slip through their hands, Docklands charged ahead into yet another significant four-point lead to start the third through the strong service of Flavien Hias and clever attacking from the vastly experienced and seemingly ageless Pink. Northumbria were visibly rattled as Docklands maintained their well-earned gap through the middle of the third set, yet Goodchild's side kept their heads and began to slowly chip away at the Londoners' lead.
While Docklands were beginning to show signs that the second match in two days, in addition to a long journey, was taking its toll, the side still found themselves 23-20 ahead and in position to extend the match to a fourth set. Yet as in the second set, and against Sheffield the day before, Docklands converted their winning position into a losing one through simple errors and a decided lack of mental fortitude. Cook and co won't mind at all, of course, and were all too happy to accept the free points on offer that saw the set finish 25-23 on another Docklands attacking error.
Captain Pink felt that despite being on the wrong end of two reversals, there were plenty of positives from the weekend to take back down to London. He said, "It was a slightly strange match today, and I'm not convinced either side reached their top level, but Northumbria won the points that mattered in crunch time and that's what decides matches. We had a number of swings on set point in the second set and didn't take our chances, and every team in the world, at any level, should be able to close out a set when leading by three in the twenties. As much as we may feel like we should be heading into the fourth set with a two-one lead, we didn't do the simple things well at the most crucial times in the match and must now head home with nothing. That's volleyball however, and doing the basics well has served Northumbria well for the past few seasons and it did so again today. Congrats to them on a well-played match.
"Ignoring a shocking start against Sheffield on Saturday, we actually played pretty well this weekend and for a lot of our players it was their first matches of the season. We have a number of other players to come back into or join the side shortly and I think that we'll improve massively throughout the campaign ahead."
Coach and former Docklands player Hopper felt that the two games had been testing but would serve as a wakeup call to his developing team, "It's no secret that the annual pilgrimage north to play Sheffield and Northumbria is as challenging a weekend as there is in English volleyball, and this year was no different. Both sides are very well drilled and though we feel slightly hard done by in not coming away with any points for our efforts, it's early days.
"We have a group of players largely of a certain vintage, and there were some tired bodies out there today. However, we'll continue to get better as we move through the season and I've a sneaky suspicion that we're going to be the team that no one wants to play in the first round of the playoffs. Today showed that we've got the ability to play with any team in this division, but all three points will stay in Northumbria and rightfully so."
Docklands' fixture against Sheffield on the previous day won't be fondly remembered by the club's supporters or volleyball purists. Four of the team were making their first appearance of the season, and Hopper's talismanic setter Kieran O'Malley only just passed a late fitness test despite carrying significant groin and wrist injuries.
However, O'Malley didn't last long and was removed towards the end of the first set, yet it would be unfair to put any more than an equal share of blame on the ex-Olympian in what was a catastrophic opening stanza that saw Docklands struggle to reach double figures.
drafted in to set in place of O'Malley, Docklands began to get
a rhythm in their play and it was the mercurial Pink who led from the
front and from the service line.
Sheffield were ably playing an important role in the tragicomedy, but such were the woes from the Docklands' half of the court, it could have gone uncast and the throngs of onlookers would have seldom noticed.
The third, and ultimately final, set was a different kettle of fish entirely. Docklands eliminated the errors and the points duly flowed, giving the Londoners a healthy but not yet decisive led at the second technical timeout.
Docklands may have produced the more eye-catching play but it was the well-drilled Sheffield team led by captain Matt Howe that proved the more efficient when the latter stages of the set came.
In what would prove to be a preview of things to come in Sunday's fixture, Docklands had a myriad of opportunities to take the set, but neither Pink nor opposite Ras could strike the decisive blow.
The two teams traded points well past 25, with neither looking particularly interested in winning with passive actions on display rather than the aggressiveness that the moment called for.
In the end it was Docklands who blinked first by foolishly aping Icarus by flying too close to the sun. Two hubristic errors gifted the set to a delighted Sheffield 33-31 and with it all three points.
The historians at the volleyball hall of fame in Springfield, Massachusetts can rest easy in the knowledge that their workload won't be burdened further by this encounter.
MVP v Sheffield: Andrew
MVP v Northumbria: Andrew